Hey, Mr. Christie: Here’s Some Free Advice

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Christie’s campaign advisors have apparently decided that the “silence is golden” rule doesn’t apply to candidates undergoing horsewhipping for taking the taciturn approach to economic policy. So yesterday Christie unveiled to the Star Ledger Editorial Board a peek at his approach to digging New Jersey out of its hole. If you look hard you can make out a few wispy details, including a faint sketch of school funding strategy:

Christie said his administration would help charter schools to compete with “failing” urban schools, forcing public schools to improve. He would authorize vouchers for children in “failing” districts, including the 31 former Abbott districts. He said he would continue to fund preschool there but would not extend it to other districts.

Hmm. The “help” to charter schools is old news: he’d expedite the process – which would require the cooperation of the Legislature — and appoint a reform-minded Education Commissioner. The other two elements are a little more fuzzy.

If Governor-hopeful Christie limits preschool funding to our 31 Abbott districts (which technically don’t exist any more), he’d be violating the School Funding Reform Act, which is supposed to fund free public full-day preschool to all impoverished children, regardless of where they live. If he disregards SFRA, he’ll set in motion inevitable legal challenges from Abbott advocates like the Education Law Center, which is itching for just that kind of violation so that the State Supreme Court will follow through on its promise to overturn SFRA if it’s not fully funded. So we end up back with a system that is corrupt, wasteful, and shows no meaningful educational benefit to the children ghettoized in cities like Trenton, Camden, and Newark.

However, he can have it both ways if he adjusts his vision of vouchers just a bit.

Our Governor-hopeful wants to authorize vouchers for those kids in Abbott districts. This raises a whole host of issues. For instance, how much is a voucher worth? Not enough to pay for tuition for private schools in New Jersey, certainly, which often run close to $30K per year. (Factoid: Arizona has an active voucher program, and 76% of the money handed out goes to children already in private school.) There’d be enough cash for parochial schools, probably, but then we get into that messy Church-State conundrum. And what about the poor rural kids who don’t live in Abbott districts but are just as educationally disadvantaged? Do they have to move to Passaic to get any relief?

Here’s a better idea, Mr. Christie. Expand your definition of“failing school district” beyond the Abbott designation. Use NCLB data, for example, and affix the tag to all schools in their 5th or 6th year as “A School In Need of Improvement,” maybe with an exception for schools that failed solely based on the scores of kids with disabilities. Give each of those kids a “voucher” equivalent to the cost of their school’s cost per pupil and let them transfer to another public school district, maybe within the same county if we want to retain our delightful Jersey provincialism. That get-out-of-jail-free card would be honored by our growing number of charter schools also. Not enough space? Build it and they will come. There’s $3.9 Billion in the Schools Development Authority. Use it to expand successful school systems so that our disenfranchised kids get to share in the educational wealth. So they don’t go to school in their specific municipality. Can’t we live with that?

In this way, a prospective governor could argue that he is fulfilling the mandate of the School Funding Reform Act by providing equitable services to all children, regardless of their place of residence. We escape from the Abbott fiasco while continuing to provide supplemental services to needy students like full day preschool, maybe in our spacious and underused county special services buildings. We create some healthy marketplace competition. And we take a tiny step towards undermining the district boundaries that make Jersey the most segregated school system in the nation.

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